Tupelo Masonic Lodge No. 318 F&AM - Forum

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Monday, May 6, 2013


P.D. Newman, 32°
Valley of Corinth, Orient of MS

In the ritual work and literature of Freemasonry we encounter a lot of talk about travelling. Whether we are symbolically journeying from the West to the East in search of Light, from the East to the West in search of that which was lost, or to the Centre in search of the genuine secrets of a Master, as Masons we do a great deal of traveling. It is no surprise then that the ritual work and literature of Freemasonry are replete with references and allusions to the art of navigation.  Intimately connected to the sciences of geography; that is, the charting of the earth, and astronomy, navigational symbolism is so important in the Craft that it is mentioned directly in some versions of the so-called Staircase Lecture from the Fellowcraft degree.

“[The] globes [atop the brazen pillars] are two artificial spherical bodies; on the convex surfaces of which are represented the countries, seas, and various parts of the earth, the face of the heavens, the planetary revolutions; …The principal use of these globes, besides serving as maps to distinguish the outward parts of the earth and the situation of the fixed stars, is to illustrate and explain the phenomena arising from the annual revolution and the diurnal rotation of the earth around its own axis. …Contemplating these bodies, we are inspired with a due reverence for the Deity and his works and are induced to encourage the studies of astronomy, geography, navigation, and the arts dependent on them, by which society has been so much benefited.” [italics mine]

Another allusion to the art of navigation within Freemasonry can be found upon the jewel of a Past Master. As Carl W. Davis explains,

“In several jurisdictions, especially in the United States, the Past Master’s Symbol consists of the Compass [sic], Sun and Quadrant. …[the latter] symbol is unique, as it can also be understood to be a sextant.


A sextant is a tool of navigation, used to measure altitude, and enable one to determine his location, and thus plot a course to travel. This is a very appropriate symbol for a Past Master, as he has had to navigate the course of his lodge during his Eastern tenure. It also shows that he is capable of assisting in the navigation of the lodge, if his successors may request his assistance.”[1]


Indeed, navigation and language implicative of the same play no small role in the literature and ritual work of Freemasonry.


In further illustration of this point, we recount an excerpt from a humorous and little-known ritual which was composed for the amusement of the brethren of the Royal Naval College Lodge of Mark Master Masons in London. In the Initiation ritual of the Noble but Slightly Dishonourable Degree of the Corks, we find the following exchange:

"A.: Matey, what is your duty?
M.: To assist you in boxing the compass …and to steer a straight course when homeward bound." [italics mine]

What, exactly, is this act of “boxing the compass” to which the above ritual refers, and what has it to do with Freemasonry? For starters, boxing the compass is a navigational term which refers to the act of learning and naming all of the degrees or points of the compass, clockwise and in order, beginning with North. And, what has it to do with Freemasonry? Well, the number of points on a compass just so happens to be no more and no less than thirty-two, the same number of degrees which comprise the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite![2] Interestingly, in addition to the 'squaring of the circle' implication contained in the phrase, the same of which is directly applicable to the Masonic symbol of the combined square and compasses insofar as the function of the latter in geometry is to construct right angles or squares, i.e., boxes, on the one hand, and arcs and circles on the other, the word compass stems, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, from the Old French word compas, meaning "circle, radius, pair of compasses." Is the Masonic significance of the concept becoming clear? By boxing the compass, the traveler is effectively making his way around the circle, “in going round which, it is said the Master and Brethren cannot materially err.”

While one in shape, it can also be said that a circle consists of two arcs, both equal and opposite, one curving to the heavens, the other bending toward the earth. In the opinion of the author, the lesson here is that in boxing the compass; that is, in making one’s way fully around the circle of one’s life and all of the ups and downs that living entails, after facing and assimilating all of the degrees or points which surround it, he must always arrive back at the Source; back at the North. But, travel he must.

The excerpt from the above ritual states that the “Matey” is also charged with the duty of steering the ship in “a straight course when homeward bound.” This too is notable. For an untold millennia, prior to the invention of the compass, sailors employed astronavigation as their primary means of finding the way home after long journeys out to sea. Of particular relevance here is the North Star or Pole Star, which sits “always fixed and immovable” above the North Pole. Almost two thousand years have passed since sailors and travelers began using the North Star as their central means of navigation. And, it continues to the present day to hold a central position in the almost mystical art of astronavigation.

In the degree of Master Architect in the Southern Jurisdiction of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, the candidate is taught that “[t]he North Star…represents the Point in the Center of the Circle, or the Deity in the Center of the Universe. It is the special symbol of the Deity and of Faith.” The North Star then, both literally and symbolically, is that guiding light by which a traveling man may find his way back home, that is, back to the Center. A similar and familiar lesson appears in the nineteenth century exposĂ© The Master-Key through All the Degrees of a Free-mason’s Lodge: “In all regular, well-formed Free-masons’ Lodges, there is a point within a circle, in going round which, it is said the Master and Brethren cannot materially err.” The implication here is of course that of orientation. In fact, the very word orientation is suggestive not only of the act of determining one’s bearings, but also of the Orient or East, the source of light and wisdom in Freemasonry. Returning to the Online Etymological Dictionary, we read that the word orientation originally meant an "arrangement of a building, etc., to face east or any other specified direction." [italics mine] Again, the Masonic import here is readily discernible.

No matter how disoriented or un-centered we may become, no matter how far off the path we may veer, the Great Architect of the Universe, in his Power, Wisdom, and Beneficence, has seen fit to equip each and every one of us with our own internal compass, the same of which will never falter and never fail us. I speak here of course of our own innate consciences. If we can but muster the courage and the fortitude to allow that internal gauge to dictate and light our way, if we can but find the faith to simply trust and follow our own intrinsic guide, then there will be no reason for us to have fear of any danger. For, just as is alluded to in Masonic ritual, our internal compass is ever present, “fixed and immovable,” always at the ready to assist us in steering “a straight course when homeward bound.”

While we may be builders, it is also true that we are travelers, journeying through life toward the Great Unknown, toward a realization of our pure potential. It is no wonder then that navigational language has found its way into the symbols of our gentle Craft. All men lose their way. We all, from time to time, lose ourselves amidst the circumambulations of daily life. But, as Freemasons, we have been provided a precious golden thread whereby we may discover the direction home, back to the North; that is, the direction back to the Centre.

The moral implications of navigational symbolism were perhaps best articulated by William Waterway in his poem Navigation.

Floating to hither from Nether
comes a message free of tether
It guides along the water way
to navigate by eye far far away
Should the message be set aside
a life full of dull thee shall abide
But to the lines thee sails true
howling seas nothing but little ado
For upon knowing which flows unseen
one senses the now come to being
Mind to mind thought to thought
things to find beyond that taught
A moment to grasp flung far past
a second within all things last
Herewith written reflection of light
witnessed by birth blessed with sight
For those who ask how this can be
look in the glass and ponder what see
Deep deep within the center of eye
keep keep the answer till thee die
Then shall crossing to Nether sway
open waters as your sails make way



Adkins, S.M. Following Arrows

Browne, John The Master-Key through All the Degrees of a Free-mason’s Lodge

Davis, Carl W. The Meaning and History of the Jewels and Symbols of a Past Master

De Hoyos, Arturo Scottish Rite Ritual Monitor and Guide

Duncan, Malcolm C. Duncan’s Masonic Ritual and Monitor

Hall, Manly P. The Secret Teachings of All Ages

Kaplan, Aryeh The Sepher Yetzirah

Waterway, William Navigation

[1] The Meaning and History of the Jewels and Symbols of a Past Master
[2] The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry is a progressive system of initiation consisting of thirty-two degrees or levels of attainment, with an additional honorary degree which is only conferred in recognition of distinguished Masonic or public service. Why there are thirty-two degrees with an additional thirty-third is a mystery even unto the Fraternity itself. Manly P. Hall offered a rather romantic explanation, writing that “King David ruled for thirty-three years in Jerusalem;…there are thirty-three segments in the human spinal column; and Jesus was crucified in the thirty-third year of His life,” [The Secret Teachings of All Ages] while Arturo de Hoyos has provided a more practical explanation, suggesting that the decision to settle on thirty-two plus one degrees may have resulted from the fact that Shepheard's Tavern, the birthplace of Scottish Rite Freemasonry, was situated at 32.776883° North Latitude [private communication]. It has also been postulated that the thirty-two degree system may in fact owe its origin to the Thirty-two Paths of Wisdom of the Hebrew Kabbalah, with the additional thirty-third degree alluding to Ein Soph. The navigational concept of boxing the compass provides yet another possible source for the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite’s settlement upon a thirty-two degree structure.

Tupelo Masonic Lodge No. 318 F&AM
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